JASMINE WALKER SHUTS the door to the coach’s office and makes her way down the hallway. Tears flow freely down her face.
Walker has just been given the news that she has not made the women’s basketball team at Bethune-Cookman University. Coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis had watched Walker try out and then explained to her that she already had too many forwards on her 2019-20 roster. There was no more room.
Walker dries her face on the sleeve of her still-sweat-soaked T-shirt and slowly picks up her head.
The tears? They’re actually tears of joy. She smiles. She is triumphant. She has just been handed perhaps the first break of her life.
Walker didn’t make the roster, but she has been given a position as a team manager.
They wanted her. They chose her.
“It’s really happening,” she said over dinner later that night. “I’m gonna make it.”
SAN DIEGO IS known for its pristine beaches and warm climate. But it also has the fourth-largest homeless population in the United States, including more than 1,500 who are minors. For nearly a decade, Jasmine Walker was one of them.
When Walker was 9 years old, her father left his family. Then Walker’s mother, Shelly Jamison, lost her job at a day care. The family was later evicted from its home. Eventually Jamison ran out of housing options. She is not apologetic or embarrassed about it.
“It’s life,” Jamison said. “Things happen, you know?”
Jamison and her four children wound up at homeless shelters, but age and gender rules meant that Jasmine and her three siblings were separated. Surrounded by strangers, Jasmine was alone.
“Not having my mom there … it was just me there lying in my bed by myself with people I don’t know,” Walker said.
Over the next several years, Walker was in and out of shelters, in tents, on the streets. She estimates that she lived in 20 different places. She used buckets as toilets, begged for money, often went to sleep hungry or cold or both. Walker says it was frightening asking people for scraps of food and scrounging for change.
When she was 12, Walker enrolled at a school for homeless children, Monarch School, in the shadows of million-dollar condos and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.
Monarch annually schools 350 K-12 students and offers programs from computer science to gardening and woodshop and is locked down tight for security. It also provides food and clothing, showers and soap and sports. But it does not provide students a place to sleep. For that, they’re on their own.
For Walker, home became a tent on a sidewalk. Basketball became her refuge.
“Basketball kept me at school longer,” Walker said. “And the reality of what I had to go home to was lessened … until you got there and then zipped it up.”
Walker was 14 when she became pregnant. She moved in with her boyfriend’s family and, on May 22, 2016, gave birth to her son, D’Angelo. She wouldn’t have him for long.
When D’Angelo was 11 weeks old, his father beat him so badly that he was left blind and afflicted with cerebral palsy, Walker said. The father, 21 at the time, pleaded no contest to five counts of felony child abuse and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. D’Angelo was taken by child protective services and placed in foster care.
It hurt Walker to the core, but she kept going, kept fighting. She had to. For her son.
CHRIS WHITEHEAD WAS hired by Monarch in 2016, before Walker’s junior season. He recognized her basketball talent immediately. Walker, at 5-foot-10, had the height and skills to excel on the court. Whitehead had no idea of her living situation until the day she didn’t show up to practice.
Whitehead asked her teammates, and he learned there had been a police sweep on the sidewalk where Walker’s tent was. She didn’t find out about it until it was too late. All of her belongings were taken away. She no longer had basketball shoes.
“That was the actual moment that everything was put into perspective for me — what I was really dealing with,” Whitehead said.
He got her a pair of shoes to wear that day, and Walker was so grateful, she was overcome with emotion. Basketball had become everything to her, and without it she was lost.
Glady Whitehead, a teacher at Monarch and Chris Whitehead’s wife, had grown close to Walker. She decided it was time to intervene.
“Whenever she is stable, there’s so much hope,” Glady said. “When she’s not stable, those are the darkest moments.”
Glady reached out to a variety of organizations and eventually found a living space for Walker, then 16, in the Hope House, an eight-person facility for homeless students. Glady pleaded with Pete Contreras, a pastor with the New Vision Christian Fellowship and the director of the facility. Hope House had a small kitchen, a large TV and Wi-Fi. The girls slept in bunk beds. An adult staff member slept on-site every night. It was the first regular and safe place for Walker to sleep in years.
“I love it,” Walker said at the time. “I get to come home to a bed. I have roommates. I know that we’re all just trying to move forward and get to where we want to be.”
Once she was stable, Walker’s grades and basketball skills improved. She was a two-time player of the year in her league and twice led her team into the playoffs. As a senior, she averaged 25 points per game.
Colleges began to take notice. In March of Walker’s senior year, a counselor from Monarch drove her to Los Angeles to meet with officials from Bethune-Cookman.
Walker was thrilled by the attention and intrigued by the history of the historically black colleges and universities. Bethune-Cookman was founded in 1904 by Mary McLeod Bethune, a black woman who believed in creating opportunity for young African American girls. It was perfect for Walker, who could have stayed closer to home and attended a community college. But going somewhere far away from tents and shelters and her overriding feeling of responsibility for her mother and siblings and her soon-to-be-4-year-old son in someone else’s home seemed like heaven.
Walking through the group of tents and inhabitants, she said with quiet resolve, “I never want to come back here ever again.”
And so she said yes when Bethune-Cookman offered her an academic scholarship, and after graduating from Monarch in June, she was ready.
She borrowed a big red suitcase from Hope House, stuffed everything she owned into it and got on a plane to Daytona Beach, Florida. She was met by a counselor, who drove her to a new life.
Alone in her dorm room — alone in a room for the first time in ages — Walker felt anxious. Did she make the right decision? She was so far from her family. She kept telling herself it was the right move to get on a path for a better life. After a few minutes, she relaxed. She knew it was the right choice. It felt good. She felt good.
She hung a framed photo of her son on her dorm-room wall.
“Someday he will know all I did,” she said. “And I did it for me and my family and I did it for him.”
WEARING A CRIMSON button-down shirt and skinny jeans, Walker fills water bottles and spreads warm-ups across the chairs on the Bethune-Cookman bench.
It’s the home opener for the Wildcats and the debut of Walker as team manager.
Now 19, Walker cheers from the bench and breathes a sigh of contentment when the Wildcats win.
The day before the game, while the players watched film, Walker taught the other four managers how to run the three-man weave. The self-named “pretty girls” were cracking up as they either ran in the wrong direction, made the wrong pass or forgot to dribble. Walker grinned, in control and the leader of the group.
She had been in the role before, leading her basketball team at Monarch, but this was different. This was 2,500 miles from San Diego. This was a Division I college. And she was an honor student. She was in charge.
“It’s just amazing how far I’ve made it,” Walker said. “I actually get to be a part of something on campus.”
She missed tryouts her freshman year because of a paperwork issue, but she burrowed into her books and played pickup games on campus and attended all the home games she could and made friends. She also made the honor roll.
She spent the summer back in San Diego with her mom, who moved into Section 8 housing. Walker worked with Whitehead and his family on her game. When she returned to Bethune-Cookman last fall, she knew she was on her way to making it all work.
Blair-Lewis and her staff watched Walker try out and then listened to her story — her full story. By the end, everyone was crying.
Walker didn’t make the team, but she got one of the manager jobs. She would be with the team at practices, sit on the bench during games, travel to road games. She would be a part of every game. She was part of the team.
“I know we can learn far more from her than she can from us,” Blair-Lewis said.
Walker plans to try out again next season. First, she’s going to pack up her room, because Bethune-Cookman canceled in-person instruction earlier this month due to the coronavirus, and she’ll stay with a friend in Virginia this summer. When she returns to campus in the fall, she’ll continue to work toward her degree in sports psychology. Anyone who knows her knows not to doubt her. She has never given up or given in.
“And I won’t,” she said. “Those days are behind me.”